My, how things can change in just a few months.
Coming off the most successful season in program history where head coach Buzz Williams led an experienced and high-powered Virginia Tech basketball team to a Sweet Sixteen appearance with ACC opponent Duke, the Hokies can now be seen searching for an entirely new identity.
Losing your five top scorers as well as your head coach can do that to a team.
What’s left now of last year’s squad is a smorgasbord of role players and depth guys who will now be given bigger, more prominent roles on the team while head coach Mike Young ushers in a new era of basketball at Virginia Tech in the form of four freshmen that will be getting significant time on the court, whether they’re ready or not.
“It worries the heck out of me. The old adage, ‘Get old and stay old.’ Well, we’re young. You can’t combat that. We’re not going to belabor it, we’re not going to pout about it. This is what we have,” coach Young said about his roster, which he had to build almost from the ground up after a handful of recruits followed Williams on his way out, as well as All-ACC power forward Kerry Blackshear.
Coach Young’s first commit at Tech ironically enough followed him as he left Wofford after 17 seasons. Guard Hunter Cattoor from Orlando, Florida, knew that he would find success wherever Young went.
Initially following in the footsteps of Wofford legend Fletcher Magee, who left Wofford this past year with the most three-point field goals in NCAA Division I history, Cattoor was known in high school as a knockdown shooter from beyond the arc. Though initially a little-known recruit expected to stay around Wofford as a four-year developmental prospect, the hype around Cattoor suddenly shot up once he switched his commitment over to Virginia Tech, even getting a three-star rating on 247Sports after initially being unranked on the site.
“Obviously it’s something special to be part of in this new era of coach Young. It’s humbling to be in this situation,” Cattoor said at Virginia Tech’s media day at the team’s practice facility.
Now with an opportunity to get significant playing time at a Power Five school in need of answers at the guard positions, Cattoor knew it was time to make a leap of faith with his new head coach.
“[Coach Young] just told me that he believed in me, that I can play at any level since day one, whether that was at low-major, mid-major or high-major,” Cattoor said. “He just kept telling me ‘you’re my guy and I want you to play for me. I believe in you. I don’t want you to second guess if you come here that you can’t play with these people’ so that really helped me with my confidence thinking he does believe in me.”
Soon after Cattoor’s decision to switch to Tech, the Hokies received their second commitment in point guard Jalen Cone. Cone, a highly touted four-star recruit from Walkertown, North Carolina, is considered to be one of the team’s best chances at finding success this season, and with a simple Google search, it’s clear to see why.
Drawing comparisons to N.C. State-alum Dennis Smith for his ability to throw down highlight-reel dunks, Cone is expected to immediately start for the Hokies and hopefully ease the loss of point guard Justin Robinson, who had been a staple in Tech’s offense for the past four years.
Cone was one of three recruits to reclassify his commitment from the 2020 class to the 2019 class after graduating from high school early. His decision to come to Virginia Tech now rather than next year may end up being crucial to the team’s success this season.
Nahiem Alleyne, the second recruit to reclassify to this year’s recruiting class, doesn’t come with the same sky-high expectations of his fellow freshman teammate, yet the impact he’s already made cannot be misplaced.
Despite proclaiming to be a rather quiet individual, much like his NBA idol CJ McCollum, Alleyne has already embraced a leadership role among the freshmen, and his role as the “glue guy” holding the group together already seems to be in full effect.
“Coach is looking for me to score on all three levels and defend, and just help other guys out like screen for them, talk to them,” he said. “Even though we’re still a young group, and I’m still learning, it’s still best for me to try and be a leader.”
The final addition to this group hails all the way from Lagos, Nigeria, the same city his favorite player and inspiration Hakeem Olajuwon grew up in. John Ojiako may not be the same dominant force the 7-foot Olajuwon was in his hayday with the Houston Rockets, but he’s certainly trying to be.
Having played just two years of organized basketball before coming to Virginia Tech, the 6-foot-10 Ojiako knows he has a lot of work to do before he can crown himself the second coming of the Rockets legend.
“I just take everyday as a learning process,” Ojiako said. “I just try my best to play hard and just put all my energy out on the floor.”
Despite his inexperience, Ojiako showed a natural ability to defend in the post and effectively win on the glass in high school. Tech will need the shot-blocking big man to show steady improvement as they hope to replace the impact of Blackshear down low. With junior P.J. Horne as the only returning player from last year’s team to have any experience at the power forward or center position, Ojiako’s development on the court will be a crucial storyline worth keeping an eye on this season.
While it’s still too early to tell just how good this group will be without seeing them play together, coach Young thinks that the team’s opener against Clemson on Nov. 5 will be a good gauge of their progress from this offseason.
“They need to see more plays. They need to see those lights come on and those other-colored jerseys roll out there. We’re going to get better,” coach Young said.